Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Zucchini Blossom Tempura

Sunshine & Stuffed Blossoms - Perfect afternoon dish with a cold, crisp glass of white wine.

Another variation on the fried blossom - this one is stuffed with goat cheese, then dipped in a tempura-esque batter of flour, a touch of baking powder and sparkling water - you'll know it's ready when the slurry that forms is just enough to coat all the tines of a fork. I was talking with a friend at Headhouse market this Sunday and he mentioned his never-fail batter of 50/50 flour & cornstarch...next time I've got cornstarch in the pantry I'll give it a go.

The trick to keeping the cheese from exploding into the frying oil is to really twist & pinch the tops of the blossom before immersing them in the 375 degree oil.

On a side note, we've begun harvesting the first of our crop of Roma tomatoes from the container garden.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gardening for Garnish Garlic Scape & Soup

Here's a snapshot of Elizabeth's parents nursery back in Virginia during high Spring. We were visiting at the end of their growing season and as always, on the hunt for interesting ingredients and flavors to take back to Philly.

This is the main growing greenhouse - you can see the tables filled up with pots of herbs and the odd ornamental plant. Earlier in the season, this house was choked with blooms, covering nearly every surface.

Growing just outside the greenhouse, at the edge of the field, was a huge patch of garlic with numerous garlic scapes poking out from the leaves.

We grabbed a knife and cut off several garlic scapes to take back home with us - having missed alot of the Spring veg at the market, these scapes offered up a remote opportunity to put in a few Spring-inspired dishes before Summer arrived.

We also harvested nearly 3 pounds of fresh asparagus from the garden - we settled on fixing a soup with all the garden offerings.

Back home, we slit the scapes down the center, reserving the pungent bulbs for another use.

Then I flash-fried the scapes into a crispy pile.

I sliced the tips off the asparagus and halved the spears. The rest of the asparagus I boiled until slightly soft in a broth of vegetable stock, along with a diced single small potato, then blitzed the mix a food processor.

The trick to keeping this soup velvety smooth was to push it through a fine-meshed strainer - here you can see the resulting liquid and solids have been separated.

The finished soup was dressed with three or four butter-poached shrimp and then topped with the crisped garlic scapes.

Another variation of the dish used fried bits of thick bacon, fennel fronds, a dollop of Greek yogurt and the asparagus tips to season the soup. Served with a crunchy bread topped with Pecorino cheese, it was a hearty Spring soup plucked straight from the garden.

The Other Kind of Awesome Blossom

Summer time is here again and that means one of our favorite ingredients are in full bloom - zucchini blossoms!

Here's an example of a typical harvest from our patio garden. It's best to pluck these early in the morning and then stand them in cold water in the fridge.

This year we went overboard planting the zucchini & squash in the hopes of extending our growing season.

Although we were careful to only harvest male flowers, we found that over-picking the blossoms caused the plants to give up early and yellow-out before any fruit appeared.

Often times we found several ants crawling around inside the flower, which called for a thorough cleaning - here you can see a flower that's been cleaned and prepped for stuffing.

Here's a typical full-on Sunday dinner incorporating the blossoms - Lamb with crispy seasoned onions, a simple grape tomato salad, a ramekin of squash, topped with bread crumbs & a fried blossom and then two cheese stuffed blossoms.

Here's a closeup of the goat-cheese stuffed blossoms. This year, instead of a heavy tempura-style batter, we're dusting the blossoms in seasoned flour and frying them up as-is. The result is a much lighter fried blossom with all of the great cheese filling.

I know that Headhouse farmer's market has been bringing in some great blossoms lately, so now is the time to experiment - stuff the blossom with a spoonful of your favorite semi-soft cheese, twist the blossom top closed, dip in a batter and then fry till it's golden brown.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Headhouse Pub Opening Review

Zot was a one-of-a-kind place. We dropped in one night, complaining about a dinner service gone bad and were spontaneously greeted with Belgian beers and a trumpet mushroom, lobster & salsify risotto at the bar.

So when we heard about Zot's unfortunate demise and the Headhouse Pub springing up in it's place, we had to stop in and see what was cooking. There have been a few stories covering this re-imagined space and they have mainly mentioned the concept of a beer-centric gastro-pub.

Here's a pic of what we think the Headhouse does well...Asian inspired bar snacks. These are the porcupine shrimp, a shrimp ball chock with crunchy water chestnut & scallions and served with a creamy dipping sauce. The vermicelli poking out from the fried balls gave it the signature 'porcupine' aspect, but overall this is the kind of dish we were expecting...satisfying and delicious small plates.

Alongside the shrimp, we ordered the fontina fritters. These were OK hot, but they quickly cooled into brownish doughballs that were unpleasantly greasy - Elizabeth enjoyed the accompanying cucumber slices & tomato creme fraiche dipping sauce more than the fritters themselves.

Before we go further into the food menu, I will mention the beer menu. There were some great beers on the menu, however the number of hop-oriented selections were sparse...I counted only 2 of over a dozen beers on tap that could be considered 'hoppy' and 3 of the selections were decidedly in the 'fruit'/'sour' category (Rodenbach Cru on draft is a HUGE bonus), which limits those hopheads ordering off the drafts. There were some great, light summer selections, like Fleur de Lehigh, a decent Hefe and Flying Fish Exit 6. The bottle menu was as deep as Zot's, so serious drinkers shouldn't be too worried...we eagerly drank up a bottle of Boon Gueuze that wasn't listed but proffered by the bartender when our request for gueuze lambic was placed with the waitress.

However, this was the biggest disappointment of the evening...mussels. Early predictions of Headhouse were of a fear that a wide menu would lead to problems executing dishes - read the comments on the news story here to see what I'm talking about- Insider

Mussels are kinda no-brainers in terms of a starting point for gastro-pubs, but I hate to say that these mussels were only mediocre and suffered from the pan-global concept.

The 'Spanish' mussels, one of four varieties available, had chorizo...fresh Mexican style chorizo which lacked the punch of a good cured Spanish chorizo. This lackluster sausage left a broth that resembled chicken noodle soup - absent were any flavors of pimenton, paprika or the other spices normally associated with Spanish chorizo.

I called this one Jewish Mother's mussels as it reminded me of a schmaltzy chicken noodle soup with mussels more so than it's namesake Spanish mussels. This oversight with ingredients, combined with so-so quality mussels ( undercooked and stringy - we left about1/4 of the mussels on the plate because they were unopened/barely opened) leads me to believe that there is some room for improvement on this dish.

To be fair, the table next to ours ordered the Asian mussels and was very pleased...more evidence than the pan-global reach of the menu may be a weakness of this kitchen.

One bright spot? The fries. Delicious. Golden Brown. Crunchy. Bring 'em on.

Although Elizabeth was full at this point, I wanted to be fair to the kitchen and test the final flavor profile advertised on the menu...Latin food. I ordered the pork carnitas with pineapple and cilantro. The pork itself was chopped and seasoned perfectly but overall it was a too dry. The creamy sauce didn't make up for the overall dry character of the pork. I can't help but wonder if the latest fad of Korean short rib tacos wouldn't be a better option on the menu in place of the carnitas?

Stepping back from the food, the space itself was beautifully remodeled; we actually dined in the front room which, those of you that remember Zot, used to house the foozball tables. The service was very attentive. One thing I noticed was that with every beer order, the waitress was quick to offer a sample before the order was placed. I can see this being a great way to ramp casual beer drinkers up into the quality offerings on tap.

Overall, I wasn't disappointed, but I wasn't impressed by the food either. It looks like the initial skepticism that I saw emerging about the kitchen may be well founded. To be fair, I saw several tables enjoying sandwiches and burgers, so there may be some better offerings towards that portion of the menu. I wish them luck and I look forward to the bar snacks, but I have some serious problems with the shotgun approach on the menu (calamari, fritters,satay,tacos,mussels, etc.). For now, this is a 'beer first' bar and I would skip it for any serious meals.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Memorial Day Dinner Party - Bebe's BBQ, Seared Scallops & Summer Corn, Balsamic Strawberry Panna Cotta

Clearing out the camera today!

We had a series of small dinner parties in our patio garden over Memorial Day weekend that was a mix of some previous favorites and a few brought in dishes.

Our brother-in-law is particularly addicted to seared scallops, so we grabbed these at WFM (Reading Terminal was closed) and applied a bit of heat. Regular readers will recognize the corn & poblano pepper salad. The little dollops of avocado mousse helped to keep these little guys anchored to the dish.

In the background you can see a bottle of Cantillon Vigneronne, a sharp gueuze that my visiting brother-in-law fell in love with at Monk's - we picked this bottle up at the Foodery...not cheap but we were splurging for our out of town guests.

Speaking of guests, here's a shot of some gorgeous flowers that a family friend brought from her garden (Thanks Michelle!)...perfect centerpiece for the table.

Did I mention that my family hails from Texas? I wanted to prove to them that Philly does food right across the map, even Southern standards like BBQ, so we stopped by Bebe's in the Italian market for some BBQ pork and brisket.

Bebe's doesn't normally sell brisket by the quart but when we told the lady chopping up the BBQ we were building some brisket sliders to go with the pork, not only did she load us up with excellent brisket to go, she also sold us a bag of slider buns...one-stop shopping. By the way, the brisket sliders went fast...what you see above were the lonely remnants of a once proud tray of sliders.

For dessert Elizabeth pulled out another tried & true favorite, the Balsamic Strawberry Panna Cotta. This uses whole milk Greek yogurt (Fage) along with some heavy cream. The strawberries marinate in balsamic vinegar and the panna cotta is topped with lemon zest and cracked black pepper - the little pops of spice and zing played great with the classic, sweet combination of strawberry and balsamic

The chef relaxes! As the evening came on we enjoyed plenty of good cheer & wine... a great start to the summer season. Had a great time everybody...thanks for visiting.